“How Murray Rothbard became an Anarchist” (not a voluntaryist)

by Murray Rothbard

[Editor’s Note: The following transcription was taken from this youtube video:

The transcription runs from 26:42 to 51:08, and was taken from a speech he delivered at the Libertarian Party Convention in Denver in 1981.]


I became an anarchist and I can remember exactly what happened. It was pure logic that did it. I used to argue with my very close friends who were very intelligent liberals. We had sessions, sitting around, arguing, constantly. We had a similar session at my house talking till two or three in the morning. That’s usual for me because I’m a night person. Three in the morning is just about average for breaking up an evening.

I said to myself “I think something important happened tonight, what the hell was it?” because it wasn’t just like the usual argument. I thought the thing over and I realized what it was because one of them said, at one point, because I was in favor of laissez faire, a pure minarchist at that point, and they were just regular liberals, he asked “Look, why do you favor government supplied police force and courts? What’s your justification for that?”

I said something like “Well, the people get together and they decide that they can have this monopoly court system, and monopoly police.”

They said, very intelligently, “Well if the people can get together and say that, why can’t they get together and set up a steel plant and a dam and all the rest of it, all sorts of other government industries?”

I thought to myself, “By God, they’re right!” I came to the conclusion that laissez faire was inconsistent.

Either you had to go over to anarchism and scrap government altogether, or else you had to become a liberal, and of course that was out of the question for me to become a liberal. That was it. That was my conversion.

Then I started reading up on the stuff, anarchist writings and libertarian writings etc. etc., to broaden my perspective.

It was a tremendous winter for me, a double barreled conversion, first to Austrian Economics and second to anarchism. Also in Columbia graduate school, of course I used to have arguments with these people all the time. At one point an interesting thing happened which stunned my liberal associates. They said, look, here you are, an extreme right-winger, crazy anarchist. We’re going to meet you up with Whitey. Whitey was the communist party leader on the campus. He was a sort of thuggish type, liked sweaters; about six foot eight. At that stratosphere, who knows what the height is? A menacing looking figure in general. They set up a meeting in the street, on Broadway.

They figured they could get out fast. And they introduced me formally. It was kind of sweet. Here’s Whitey who’s the outstanding Marxist-Leninist on campus, and here’s Murray Rothbard who’s attacking Senator Taft for having sold out to the socialist. They figured that would be it, we’d pummel each other to death and they’d get rid of two extremists.

Oddly enough, was happened was that Whitey said “Oh, an anarchist, that’s great!”

We shook hands and had a very friendly discussion in which Whitey tried to prove to me that the way to achieve the withering away of the state is by maximizing state power. I thought that was little kooky.

My liberal friends were totally confused, asking “Why didn’t these guys hit each other over the head with clubs?” It was an interesting ideological experience.

And here’s another interesting political point is that the Libertarian Party didn’t yet exist so I wasn’t yet politically pure.

In the 1948 campaign, I supported Thurmond for president, a states’ rights candidate. There was a little club on Columbia University campus called “Students for Thurmond.” It was a very small club as you might expect. This was during the height of political activism. Most of the people on campus were Henry Wallace supporters.

Others were Truman supporters. There were two or three Dewey supporters. And here I was, a Thurmond supporter. The Thurmond members had one meeting. At the meeting there were four or five, and about 12 or 13 hostile observers trying to find out what kind of evil racism was being promoted here. Most of the people who got up to talk were Southern states’ rights types who didn’t have much to say.

I got up here as a New York Jewish guy with a passionate plea against centralized government and for decentralization.

Anyway, the students for Thurmond club did not flourish. That was my one experience with it.

At any rate, we had six or seven people, in this little circle of Bastiat. We got along very well. Thank goodness they were very happy times. We were a small number, but pure in spirit. We were arguing about arcane matters and never about strategy.

I remember also this was the first time in my life I ever got red-baited, a big new experience for me. Those of you who think I’m a commie now, well, there’s nothing to it. I considered myself an extreme right-winger. This is the old right Republicans who are semi-libertarian, anti-military, anti-intervention, anti-conscription and in favor the free market. I consider myself to be an extreme version of this. I wrote an column for an obscure little magazine called Faith and Freedom, which nobody’s ever heard of, I’m sure, here. It was a very good libertarian magazine for its day, written for right wing protestant ministers. That was the market they were writing for. With the people writing it, there was sort of a culture clash. I wrote the Washington column, succeeding Chodorov, one of my proud moments, when he left even though I’d never been to Washington at that point. I wrote under a pseudonym, Aubrey Herbert, for various obscure and unimportant reasons. This was beginning of the Eisenhower administration. So I had a lot of fun attacking most of his statist plans of the Eisenhower administration, attacking the idea that we should spend every drop of American blood supporting Chiang Kai-shek. I was having a ball. The editor comes flying to the East, and six months before he said I’d been doing a great job as a great writer and all that. He comes and says “I have to fire you.” “Why do you have to fire me?” He said our constituents were calling me a communist. These were right-wing protestant ministers, so I was kind of stunned. It was the first time I was red-baited, but now I’m used to it, so it was a kind of culture shock. So I said that I’d spent all this time attacking the government so how could I be a communist because communists favor all-out government ownership of everything? But logic was lost on the editor because he was just interested in his constituents. Fortunately or unfortunately, divine retribution struck and the magazine folded about three months later.

That brings me up to the middle or late 1950s. Before that, the 5 or 6 or 8 of us who were libertarians considered ourselves extreme right wingers in this spectrum/context. Then what happened was the right wing was taken over and changed dramatically by the National Review in 1955. There was a power vacuum because the old leaders had died off, like Taft and Colonel McCormick. It was easy for the National Review to take over and change the whole picture into what the right wing is now. The right wing in those days was not theocratic; it was not pro-war or pro-conscription. Anyway, the face of the whole right wing was changed at which point those of us who considered ourselves extreme right wingers had to leave. We started leaving the right-wing movement. It was a painful break as these things usually are.

I wrote quite a few economic articles and book reviews for National Review in the first few years. I was pretty appalled by what in those days was the “new right” and split with them about 1959. My best friend there was Frank Myers, a very interesting character. He was the book review editor and a general theoretician for National Review, now dead. A very charming chap, who was extremely erudite, intellectually exciting, very libertarian. He hated the public school system, and even hated the private schools, as a result, he raised his kids himself which as you know is a heroic act as many of you realize. He was pretty good on most things, but he was all in favor of nuclear war. To give you a sort of feel for what National Review was in those days, and probably still is, but I haven’t any contact with them for a long time, Frank and his wife Elsie, also a very charming person, used to argue about what the foreign policy move should be. Frank was in favor of an immediate nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. Elsie wanted to give them twenty-four hours to resign before we’d attack. That was the matrix, the spectrum of opinion on the right wing, the new right. So we did not politically see eye to eye for a long time.

The other thing that struck me about the new right was the monarchistic aspect. I remember many sessions or cocktail parties where the big argument would be something like this:

Should the Bourbon monarchy be restored first or the Hapsburgs? So that’s not the sort of thing I can relate very well to. It’s even worse than agricultural metaphors.

After the small growth in the middle to late 40s, after finding the movement in the middle to late forties and having some intellectual companions in the fifties, by 1959 or 1960 we’re back in square one more or less, and most of the libertarians were beginning to swing in the pro-war direction.

One of my close friends, an original member of the Circle of Bastiat, Robert Shuckman who died a tragic death very early, was the first chairman of the Young Americans for Freedom.

I’ll give you an example of YAF’s spirit in those days, and maybe still is. It’s at the founding meeting in Connecticut of YAF. This was the beginning of the libertarian-conservative alliance, not me but the other people. They suggested the term “Young Americans for Freedom,” but the “trads” who were the majority, the traditionalists, said “No no, we can’t use the word ‘freedom’ because it’s a commie word.” To me that sort of symbolizes the right wing from then on: “‘Freedom’ is a commie word.” But Shuckman was able to prevail with some of the cooler heads, like Buckley, to get the thing started.

We had a situation. By the early sixties, I had to start battling on the foreign policy front both with libertarians as well as other people. When the Vietnam war started, and the draft, of course, that made the whole thing more intense. Leonard Liggio and I founded “Left and Right” which we published three times a year, I don’t know how to say it. Tri annual or whatever. We figured nobody was reading it. We had some subscribers, but unfortunately we were so ill-organized that we never cashed anybody’s check, so we had a heavy deficit. But we figured nobody was reading it. It turned out later after the magazine died a lot of people seemed to have been influenced by it. Writing is sort of like, putting a note in a bottle and putting it out on the ocean and hoping somebody reads it someday. It’ll be very surprising to find out a lot of people have read it.

With this position of being anti-war and anti-draft certainly on the war question, it split us totally from the right-wingers. They accused us of being commies for the second and not the last time. Then we arrive at the famous YAF split. We get to the point in ’69, I guess it was, all of a sudden libertarian types pop up at YAF. You’ll hear them [later, during a] discussion of this. I wasn’t really close to that because the YAF split happened in St. Louis, but I did contribute to it by running a four-page article in Libertarian Forum which I had just founded in ’69 to replace “Left and Right,” saying “Listen, YAF,” urging them all to split with this organization, once again blowing my cool but it seemed to have a certain amount of effect. At any rate, YAF was split, of course, the big issue being the draft. The conservatives, the trads at the YAF convention being horrified and appalled when one of our people, the libertarian caucus people in YAF, burned his draft card openly, at which point they tried to lynch him. Our people at St, Louis were shouting “laissez faire, laissez faire!” as the motto while they were burning the draft card and the opposition, the trads were shouting “lazy fairies,” which again shows the mentality of these people.

In the meantime, the Libertarian Forum had been founded, one because Left and Right was running too many deficits. And two, because we figured that with the Nixon administration coming to power, and this has certain parallels right now of course, many libertarians at the time thought Nixon was going to be the savior. He was going to bring liberty to America. I swear it’s true! Several friends of mine at this time had become Nixon advisers were claiming Nixon was a libertarian. In fact some of them said Nixon’s really an anarchist if you can believe that. They said “Nixon’s one of us, you’ll see. Right now, because he’s running for office, he has to pretend he’s left-wing and statist and all that, but you’ll see when he gets in office, he’ll take off the gloves and come out of the closet.” Of course we did see, to our deep regret.

As a matter of fact, I coined a little quip at that point.

Nixon was one of the pioneers in the idea of having special groups, like writers for Nixon, housewives for Nixon etc. etc. So I wrote a thing saying there should be a group called “Anarchists for Nixon.” At any rate, I got a quick disillusionment with that. We founded Libertarian Forum largely because my publisher close friend Joe Peden believed that we should have a voice pointing out Nixon’s not really a libertarian, goddammit. That’s really how we got started.

About the same time the YAF split was going on, we started supper clubs in New York, libertarian supper clubs. There is now a libertarian supper club which is very successful and peaceful. Our supper club was successful, but not very peaceful. This was during the Nixon repression period. We figured out that the meetings in my living room were getting a little too large. I have a pretty small living room. My living room was legendary, but it’s small. So we decided to have a supper club and hire a Chinese restaurant or something, something nice and cheap. And have a meeting and announce it with someone reading a paper or something, so we did that. We met at a Chinese restaurant, seedy, but very good, at Broadway and 103rd street. We thought we’d get about 30 people. We had about 80 people. This was the beginning of the big libertarian growth. Where did these eighty people come from? Who the hell are they? Some of them were police agents, at least one. We have to realize, these meetings were extremely innocuous. It was on a Saturday evening, and my friend Leonard Liggio gave a paper on the history of classical liberalism. The next morning, we had a contact. We had one student group at Fordham University – it was the one big student libertarian group, the one and only, maybe there was another one somewhere – they knew the head of New York State YAF at the time. It was a very friendly at Fordham campus. After Saturday night, on Sunday morning, the YAF guy would call up my friends at Fordham say “Here’s what happened last night: Leonard Liggio gave a paper. The following people attended it:” and he wheeled off a list of attendees. He got that from his police spies. He was friendly with the New York City police department. That was the sort of atmosphere. They didn’t do anything in particular at that point, but I guess we felt we were on the cutting edge of revolution.

Then we did something very daring, but, in retrospect, pretty crazy. We issued a call in Libertarian Forum: “Come one, come all,” on Columbus Day in 1969. “Everybody show up for this mammoth thing.” We expected 200 people but 400 showed up. “Who are these people?” We never saw them before, and usually didn’t see them later either. It was very strange, phantasmagoric. We held this thing at a notorious commie hotel in Times Square. We weren’t the affluent crowd we are now. This was the old days. It was called The Diplomat with a very cheap meeting room. We had these scholarly papers and stuff like that, but we found peculiar things happening. We were standing outside and all of sudden somebody would pop up with a flash bulb and a take our picture. Somebody would swagger up with an obvious shoulder holster bulge and a crew cut and say “You one of those anarchists in there?” We’d say “Anarchists? Who’s that? We never heard of that. We’re just standing here going to a restaurant.” That was the situation, where there was almost a police bust, but they didn’t quite get to it, but it was close to it.

We were a very strange and motley group. Don’t forget, we were used to eight people in a living room, or twenty people. Here we find a tremendous spectrum of libertarian variety. Imagine people running around with capes with dollar signs on them to people with weird looking black armbands constantly shouting “Kill! Loot!” Without a close meeting of the minds, it probably turned off more people and set back the movement by quite a few years I think. We had to learn through experience. It was an essential learning process.

That brings us to the late 60s. I guess I should talk about the first publicity of the movement. It was the fall of 1970. The campus revolt was taking place in ’69 and ’70, basically all the burnings of the cards and whatever. By the fall of seventy, the whole thing had died out very very fast.

The New York Times was looking around for something to write about. They went to the campus and couldn’t find any political activity. They went to Columbia University, the year or two before, the heartland of sit-ins and burnings and all that, and couldn’t find any political activity at all except one peculiar group called the Freedom Conspiracy. Who were these people? Never heard of them before. Freedom Conspiracy was the only active political group on campus in 1970. They were in favor of Jim Buckley for senate, a deviation which fortunately has now been corrected. They were a weird group because on one hand they were talking all this stuff about laissez faire and free market and also very counterculture type stuff. They had things with black flags and long hair and all the rest of it.

The New York Times felt it was a very interesting phenomenon and wrote a little article about it. And then, two or three months later the New York Times magazine section, an extremely influential on the media and opinion groups wrote a front page article in early 1971 with a picture of these guys, the two leaders standing there in the Rosetto with a black flag and “anarchy” written on the back. It was a long lead article about this strange new group called “Libertarians” in favor of John Locke and so on. This is the first time, I think, the modern libertarian movement got any kind of media publicity and it kicked things off because then there were op-ed pieces about it.

Then they asked me to write something about it and I got in an argument with Buckley as usual. From that, they asked me to write For a New Liberty and the whole thing began to snowball. Later that year, the Libertarian Party was founded. I think since you’re all familiar with the history of the party and you’ll hear much more about it from the founding members who were really here in person in Colorado, I’ll end my reminiscences and nostalgia at this point. I brought you from the antediluvian period of my birth all the way up to modern times. So, thank you very much!

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